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President Obama seeks to revamp No Child Left Behind teaching standards

By Nick Anderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 2, 2010; A11

As legions of schools nationwide fall short of academic targets, the Obama administration proposed Monday to toss out the pass-fail measure that for 15 years has been the bedrock of the school accountability system and replace it with an index that would reward educators who prepare students for college and careers.

The shift, if approved by Congress, would force a wholesale rethinking of school testing standards eight years after enactment of the No Child Left Behind law put a spotlight on disparities in achievement among groups of students.

The changes would reach far into the classroom, potentially affecting how teachers prepare for annual state tests, which students get extra help and what subjects are taught.

Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, a critic of the law, applauded the administration's move. "What that says is, 'Let's focus on the student and not some arbitrary, high-stakes test score,' " the union leader said. "As if you could reduce a student to a test score. You can't."

No Child Left Behind stresses penalties for schools that fall short of "adequate yearly progress" on reading and math tests. Many educators loathe it, whether their schools hit or miss their targets. President Obama stresses flexibility for states and rewards for teachers and schools that help students make gains, even if they don't reach proficiency.

Much remains unclear about how Obama would hold schools accountable for results. Experts call it unlikely that the president would seek to junk a results-oriented system that is ingrained in 50 states and the District. In fact, the administration will still rely on those data to compile lists of struggling schools it wants to turn around.

But the administration's decision to scrap the AYP standard gave the clearest signal yet of the direction it wants to take in rewriting a law named for a George W. Bush campaign slogan.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan credited the law for exposing achievement gaps but said it has focused too much on reading and math and unfairly labeled many schools. He said the administration had not decided whether to eliminate the law's requirement for all students to show proficiency by 2014.

"Everything's on the table," he told reporters in a conference call.

As a school rating tool, AYP was written into federal law during the Clinton administration in 1994 and gained potency under Bush. The 2002 law requires schools to show progress toward closing achievement gaps by 2014 through annual testing. Schools that repeatedly fall short face sanctions as harsh as closure.

Over the years, more schools have failed to meet AYP as target pass rates have climbed. In Virginia, for instance, 524 schools -- 28 percent of the total -- are falling short. The same is true for 23 percent of Maryland schools and thousands more elsewhere.

"If there's one thing that causes anger on the part of teachers, it's AYP," said Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy in Washington. "They think it's arbitrary and an unfair way to measure how schools are doing. The question is, will the replacement be better?"

In the education budget, the administration spelled out the beginnings of a replacement proposal.

"The reauthorization plan would replace 'adequate yearly progress' with a broader picture of school performance that looks at student growth and school progress," the document states. Details must be worked out with Congress.

Separately, the District and 48 states (Texas and Alaska are the exceptions) are seeking to develop common standards for the skills and knowledge that define career and college readiness.

The administration has set aside hundreds of millions of dollars to develop a new generation of tests if states can agree on common standards, just one of the incentives in a fiscal 2011 budget that seeks $50.7 billion in discretionary funds, a 9.7 percent increase.

Whether an overhaul of No Child Left Behind can be completed before this year's midterm elections is uncertain.

Former education secretary Margaret Spellings, who helped Bush implement the law, warned that Obama could pay a political price if he backs away from the goal of all students reaching proficiency.

"When I was secretary, I used to ask parents in the audience, 'How many of you want to wait until 2014 before your kids read on grade level?' " Spellings said. "Of course parents want their children on grade level right now, today."

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